After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, the National Rifle Association fell back on its tried and true method of dealing with firearms violence. The NRA said nothing for about two weeks, waiting for the initial emotional shock to settle, and then blamed society in the form of the entertainment industry and the press, with a special shout out to video games. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) has introduced a bill calling on the National Academy of Sciences to investigate the effects of violent video games and President Obama has instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the effects of violent video games. The President’s words, in a speech following Sandy Hook, were more inclusive and not limited to video games “And while year after year, those who oppose even modest gun safety measures have threatened to de-fund scientific or medical research into the causes of gun violence, I will direct the Centers for Disease Control to go ahead and study the best ways to reduce it. And Congress should fund research into the effects that violent video games have on young minds. We don’t benefit from ignorance. We don’t benefit from not knowing the science of this epidemic of violence.”
Several things come to mind, not necessarily in any order. One is that we seem to have already decided that violent video games are bad. In a 1992 CDC publication “The Prevention of Youth Violence: A Framework for Community Action” the foreword says “Movies and television entertain us with realistic and bloody dramatizations of murders, beatings, and tortures. Warlike video games have become a popular part of our culture, and our children routinely watch cartoons that depict violent events.” Of course war has also been a popular part of our culture too. It brings to mind the 1966 poster “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” If children stopped playing soldier, would they stop being real soldiers when they grow up?
Secondly, in June 2011, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, No. 08-1448, said video games were subject to full First Amendment protection. Justice Scalia, writing the decision for the majority, said “Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas — and even social messages — through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world).” The Court noted the violence in other areas of popular culture, including Grimm’s fairy tales.
Third, we have been here before. Through the late 1930s and ’40s, comic book publishing was a major industry. The most popular subjects seem to have been love, cowboys, and patriotic heroes. There was Captain America, Commando Yank, Yankee Doodle Jones, the Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy, and many more. War comics were inevitably popular as well, but when the war ended, tastes changed, and war comics gave way to crime, and some horror. Inevitably, quality varied between publishers. Comics House featured a character known as Crimebuster, whose function was largely to support local clubs where kids could socialize and play sports. EC Comics is best known for Tales From The Crypt and The Vault of Horror, but while the occasional story was over the top, the art was excellent, and many of the stories were adaptations of quality literature. Into this market came Dr. Frederic Wertham, a psychiatrist who linked comic books to juvenile delinquency. In 1954, he appeared before the Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency of the Committee on the Judiciary. Faced with the threat of censorship and with declining sales, many publishers went out of business, while the rest accepted self-censorship under the Comics Code Authority.
The censorship decimated the comics as an industry and had no effect on juvenile delinquency. But in the journal Information & Culture, A Journal of History, Carol Tilley of the University of Illinois demonstrates conclusively that Dr. Wertham, defender of righteousness, faked his results and conned the Senate. Also, a 2001 review of the literature on the effects of violent video games concluded that video games are probably as harmful as television or movies, but it will take more research to prove even that.
All of which is a very long way to ask a simple question: since sports fans like to talk about sports, and movie lovers like to talk about movies, why doesn’t the NRA ever want to talk about guns?
Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2013
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